A VOLUNTEER force branded the possible loss of a council's total countryside staff as a "betrayal" yesterday.
Last year, Gateshead Council considered plans to axe its six-strong countryside management team which looks after sites such as the Derwent Walk Country Park and Derwenthaugh Park, which attract 500,000 visitors a year.
Gateshead’s 70-strong volunteer countryside ranger force organised a protest e-petition which amassed more than 2,500 signatures – enough to compel the council to reconsider. Eventually four posts were lost but two countryside warden staff remained.
The council’s news magazine said that the authority had listened to people’s concerns but now the remaining two posts are included in further spending cuts proposals which go before the council’s cabinet today.
Harold Dobson, spokesman for the volunteer force, said : “Keeping two of the staff last year was better than nothing but the new proposal has been met with absolute disgust.”
Mr Dobson said that 60% of the Gateshead area was rural but there was now the prospect of top nature sites such as Ryton Willows, Shibdon Pond, Blaydon Burn, Stargate and Lamesley Pastures not being cared for.
He said: “These are amazing sites but if there are no full-time staff there will be vandalism, anti-social behaviour, littering and lack of maintenance, and people not wanting to visit.
“It will be a downward spiral. It appears that no thought has been given to the risks and the implications.” Mr Dobson said that because there would be no direction or supervision, volunteer effort was also likely to fall off.
The Derwent Valley is home to the successful red kite reintroduction programme.
But Ken Sanderson, chairman of the Friends of Red Kites, said: “If these posts are lost there will be a significant impact.
“The Friends are stepping in and doing a minimum level of maintenance but we don’t have the numbers or resources to take on more, even if we wanted to.
“We work closely with the full-time countryside staff who help us a lot.
“But if there is no maintenance or security, people will roam at will and do what they want, and sites will deteriorate.” Also included in the proposals are the closure of Bill Quay Community Farm or its transfer to another operator; a £100,000 reduction in support for climate change and energy efficiency projects; less backing for the historic environment including the ending of the blue plaques scheme; the scrapping of Heritage Open Days co-ordinating activity; no council patrols of Saltwell Park; reduction in maintenance of council parks including no spring or summer bedding displays.
Gateshead Council group director of community based services, David Bunce, said: “Since we carried out budget consultation for 2011/12, the council’s financial situation has worsened.
“With greater reductions in funding from central Government than expected, regrettably we have to look again at a whole variety of services that we provide, including countryside wardens.
“No decisions have yet been made and we will be consulting residents about all of the proposals. Cabinet will meet to discuss consultation.”